Home / Ticking Time Bombs, Kiefer Sutherland, and Austrian Battleships

Ticking Time Bombs, Kiefer Sutherland, and Austrian Battleships


A while ago I read this interesting New Yorker profile of Joel Surnow. As is well known, Surnow’s fascination with the ticking time bomb scenario provides repeated narrative justification for putting Kiefer Sutherland in a room with a variety of torture implements and some unfortunate terrorist. I don’t watch 24, but it did get me thinking about the actual incidence of real-life ticking time bomb scenarios. I finally realized that I was passingly familiar with at least one scenario that comes pretty close.

The ticking time bomb scenario has been of use to torture advocates because it purports to produce a “best case” for the use of torture. The features of the scenario are reasonably well known. A terrorist or individual of similar occupation has been captured. We know, somehow, that a bomb will go off in the very near future in a target of great value. We don’t know exactly when the bomb will go off, or precisely where it is, but we know that our captured terrorist does know where the bomb is, and could supply us with that information if he so chose. In this scenario it is argued, by Alan Dershowitz among others, that torturing the terrorist into giving up the location of the bomb is legitimate and appropriate behavior.

Critiques of this scenario have hammered at the details. How precisely do we know that a bomb will go off, and that it will go off in a high value target? How reliable is our intelligence on this, and how is it that we know the target and time but do not know the location of the bomb? How do we know that the terrorist we have in custody actually has knowledge of the location of the bomb? How can we determine the veracity of the information we acquire under torture? Except for the last, these questions suggest that the “ticking time bomb” scenario, while commonly found on television, isn’t something that actually happens in real life. The last attacks the scenario in another way, suggesting that the proposed solution (torture) is unlikely to have the effect we want (finding the bomb). Finally, doesn’t opening the door to torture in this (extremely stylized) scenario open up the possibility that torture will become more attractive in other scenarios?

Although it didn’t occur to me the first time I wrote it, the experience on the battleship Viribus Unitis is an almost classic ticking time bomb scenario. Viribus Unitis was the first dreadnought of the Austro-Hungarian Navy. In October 1918, when it was becoming clear that the Central Powers would not prevail in the war, and that their navies would become subject to confiscation by the Allies, Emperor Karl I of Austria decided to turn over Viribus Unitis to the newly created Council of Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs that would soon occupy formerly Austrian territories on the Adriatic. Italy, however, had designs on some of the Austrian territory that might be turned over to the Croats, and didn’t like the idea of 3 modern dreadnoughts being in the possession of the Austrian successor state. Although the SCS declared that it was no longer at war with the Allies, this declaration was not immediately recognized on the Allied Accordingly, Italy dispatched a pair of young men named Raffaele- one a Lieutenant Paolucci, and the other a Major Rossetti- to infiltrate Pula Harbor on a modified torpedo and attach a bomb to the dreadnought’s hull. This the Raffaeles succeeded in doing, but they were captured while escaping, and brought on board the Viribus Unitis.

When the Raffaeles were brought on board, they told Admiral Vuckovich (the new commander of the dreadnought) that they had affixed a bomb to the hull and that the ship should be evacuated. This put the admiral in an awkward position. He could evacuate, but that would ensure the loss of the battleship when the mine exploded. The Viribus Unitis class was notorious for its poor underwater protection, making the threat of the bomb particularly potent. While it could be argued that the admiral should have evacuated VU anyway, thus saving the lives of his men, the ship was an extraordinarily expensive piece of state property. The men onboard the ship expected that they might have to die or kill in its defense. It was reasonable at the time to believe that the ship might be used to fight or deter the Italians. As such, evacuation doesn’t present a very compelling option. Instead, the admiral decided to keep enough sailors on board to allow the best possible response to the damage that the bomb would cause. Inevitably, it risked the deaths of many sailors, but at the same time held out the best chance for saving the ship.

But what of the Raffaeles? The Italian officers had already admitted that a bomb was attached to the hull, and that it would explode in a relatively short period of time. They begged Admiral Vuckovich to be allowed to escape, and he agreed to let them go. However, when they reached the water they were assailed by angry sailors, and then dragged back onto the ship. Fearing prosecution (and potentially execution) for what amounted to a legally questionable attack on what its owners presumed to be a neutral vessel, the Italians demanded to be treated as prisoners of war. Admiral Vuckovich made no determination at the time, but ordered the crew not to harm the Italians. Twenty-five minutes later the bomb exploded. Fifteen minutes after that Viribus Unitis rolled over and sank with 300 men, including Admiral Vuckovich but not including the Raffaeles, who were allowed by Admiral Vuckovich to escape, and who spent about a week as prisoners of war.

And here are a couple of questions for the gallery. First, does this represent a genuine historical case of a classic ticking time bomb scenario? The Croats didn’t have a lot of time to torture the Italians, but they could be fairly certain that the bomb existed and that the Italians knew where it was. If they had discovered the location, the Croats might have been able to either disable the bomb or to prepare damage control around the area of the explosion. Moreover, they may even have had enough time to confirm or disconfirm statements made under torture by the Italians.

Would the torture have worked? The Italians clearly wanted to stay alive, but they didn’t give up the location of the bomb even when it seemed certain that they would fall victim to it. Whether they would have given up the information under threat of severe pain in addition to death is unclear. Had they given up the location of the bomb and survived, the Raffaeles would have probably have been made the object of scorn and derision in Italy, rather than receiving treatment as heroes.

How much weight should be placed on the behavior of Admiral Vuckovich? Charged with the defense of the ship, which entailed a willingness to see his sailors die and to kill the sailors of the enemy, Vuckovich decided that the information wasn’t worth torturing the Italians. His decision likely depended upon a combination of utilitarian calculus, professional honor, and perhaps a revulsion against torture. It’s possible that he made a mistake, but his evaluation of the situation should weigh heavily on the historical ledger.

The real lesson, of course, is that learning about battleships enriches everyone’s life.

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  • Bob Brecher, Torture and the Ticking Bomb (Blackwells, 2007) publisher site link here is a good resource here for this question, and for the entire ticking bomb scenario, with special attention to Dershowitz.
    Brecher would no doubt say that the Italians could have held out for 25 minutes, or just fed the torturers false info, sending them on wild-goose chases (“it’s in the map room!” “no, no, it’s in the engine room, behind the second boiler!” “no, sorry, it’s in the crew’s mess!” etc.) that would surely be able to waste much more than 25 minutes.
    The real lesson is that military and quasi-military organizations (that is, non state actors bent on violent action) adapt to torture: they use cells to limit information concentration, which makes plans more robust, since capturing a single node (or any less than a certain threshold) is not going to yield all the crucial info. And / or they train their operatives to give false information, but false information of a specific kind: just the right kind of wild goose chase, etc.
    Brecher and others have convinced me, on purely practical grounds, that interrogational torture is not worth the bad PR and with it the loss of co-operation with allies (e.g., Canada). I know this little homily is slightly OT, but I did want to plug Brecher’s very good book.

  • Let me boil down the above comment. The closer in time you are to the bomb going off, the less effective torture is going to be, because even the best torturers need time to break their victims. But the shorter the time until the event, the more likely the victim can either just hold out, or effectively lie. So the very fact that this incident fits the ticking time bomb scenario shows that interrogational torture doesn’t work, even in supposedly paradigm cases.

  • ploeg

    Or if the Italians gave the wrong information to the crew, they would have increased the chance of the ship sinking by distracting the crew from the true location of the bomb, and they would have avoided torture for a time.
    Further, it is worth noting the fact that the Italians more or less willingly gave accurate information to the Croats without torture. Torturing the Italians to get information on the bomb that you know about would tend to discourage the disclosure of additional information (for example, whether there were other teams with other bombs).

  • Mike

    Consider that the result was utter disaster for the Yugoslavs, this incident won’t be useful in persuading the pro-torture faction.

  • klondike

    We have a winner in the category of Best Use of a Battleship in Explaining Why 24 is Not Like Real Life, Blog Division. Great bit of neglected history.
    A similar situation, not quite the same, arises with the St Nazaire raid in 42. The british raiders are all in custody of the dreaded Nazis (so beloved of right wing analogists), on site, receiving more or less correct POW treatment, when the first delayed fuse blast takes out the Campbeltown and hundreds of German sightseers.
    Does it occur to Hitlers minions to start waterboarding people to find out about other ticking time bombs? Nah. The next day another delayed action torpedo wreaks havoc on the Normandie dock. Still, the brit terrorists are marched off to POW camps, untortured.
    Fortunately, thanks to shows like 24, we’re smarter and more ruthless than those pansies Hitler had working for him.

  • Mark Centz

    Does taking the prisoners below to steerage for otherwise legal questioning constitute torture in this instance? And would the questioners want to do that under those conditions?

  • jalrin

    The Yugoslav admiral had another good reason to not torture the Italians: torture is against the rules. To allow it under this situation would have indicated to everyone present that life and death situations suspend the rules. Since all combat is life and death, the result would be the complete destruction of order and discipline which would obviously be catastrophic for any navy that might actually have to fight.
    It therefore makes no sense to use torture unless you are willing to use it regularly and thus make it not against the rules. Since that would obviously be bad, torture must always be prohibited.

  • Some Guy

    Well, you had pretty much the exact same thing happen to the KMS Tirpitz, when the British commandos who planted the mine were captured. The difference was that the ship wasn’t destroyed, tough there were injuries. Unless I’m mistaken in my memory, the captured commandos were treated very well.

  • I’m in two minds about it. You’re fighting a war, in which you kill people, sometimes in horrible ways, and the admiral would have no qualms shelling the Italians and their towns, and one presumes, he would kill them hand to hand if it came to it.
    If you could be certain that torturing the Italians would save lives, you have a trolley problem, more or less. I’ve never really understood why people think that if you do nothing but know that doing nothing will have a far worse outcome than doing something, you are morally correct, although I understand the arguments either way. (And for myself, I would tend to inaction and claim that I had not done a moral wrong. But admirals have clearly chosen to perform acts that I would not consider, anyway.) Consequently, I consider this sort of trolley problem a practical question, and the admiral needs only consider whether it will work.
    The problem with this sort of question is that the “principle” that torture is unthinkable is taken to trump the “principle” that lives can be weighed in a scale, so that it’s worse to lose ten than it is to lose one. We generally adhere to both “principles” but they can clearly conflict, and do here. My view is that the stand that most of us take, that torture is entirely inpermissible, is at odds with our views on the weights of lives and also with our support for our armed forces’ killing and wounding others, even civilians. It’s okay to blast someone to pieces with an HE shell but not to torture them? It’s abhorrent to waterboard an innocent, but okay for them to be “collateral damage”?
    I like John Protevi’s discussion of the practical issues, and I wonder whether the admiral took the “PR” issue into account. You can’t help but feel he did. I wonder though what kind of man feels that it’s better to be known as the man who let 300 people he was responsible die than to be known as a man who ordered the torture of a couple of people who were trying to kill his seamen? If he was sure it would work, this question really becomes interesting.

  • This is different from the usual terrorist scenario in that it involves the destruction of property and not Mothers Clutching Infants. There was an opportunity to evacuate.
    The ticking time-bomb case is made in the depiction of inhuman monsters who would dance a jig in the blood of your relatives.

  • CelticDragon10

    “The real lesson, of course, is that learning about battleships enriches everyone’s life.”
    Yay!! More battleship blogging!! :) :+:

  • Noumenon

    I thought I’d never been moved by the ticking time bomb scenario, but I find the admiral’s choice very strange. The difference with the normal scenario is that the Italians will be blown up too if they don’t tell you — you shouldn’t even have to torture them. Just tie them up in the bottom of the boat and wait for them to tell you!

  • ajay

    Just tie them up in the bottom of the boat and wait for them to tell you!
    Actually happened, I believe, aboard the Barham after the attack by Italian MAS units – the divers were captured and refused to say why they were there, so the captain ordered them to be imprisoned on the Barham below the water line – they gave up five minutes before the bomb went off.

  • Does taking the prisoners below to steerage for otherwise legal questioning constitute torture in this instance? And would the questioners want to do that under those conditions?
    Per the present protocols of the Geneva Conventions (of which I note the only country to sing all the of the present accords was Tito’s Yugoslavia), it would be against the rules.
    POWs are hors de combat and so have to be removed from harm. They were on 1: a targetted object (the legitimacy of such targetting is a different question, but it was clear the Italians were targetting the vessel). 2: POWs are to be removed from harms way. 3: They said the ship was going to have a bomb go off.
    Ergo, keeping them on the ship is against the rules.
    To move them belowdecks is tantamount to the prohibited “mental coercion”.
    After that, all the arguments of practical difficulty, as described, and moral value; as discussed come into play.
    For those who are unaware (I don’t comment much) I’m an army interrogator/interrogation instructor.
    Google my name, and “interrogation” or “torture” and all those arguments, and more will be found. You can do the same with the name on my blog; which will lead to more of the same, with different grace notes. The tune is ever the same, it’s just the ornamentation which changes.

    • Scott P.

      (of which I note the only country to sing all the of the present accords was Tito’s Yugoslavia),

      They were the most musical of nations.

  • Hickes01

    Very interesting. I agree with an earlier writer, who suggested the HMS Campbeltown incident was a better example of the ticking time bomb. Thirty minutes is just not enough time for torture. Plus it’s hard to waterboard someone on a sinking ship. Actually neither incident really meets the criteria, because they involve military sites and not innocent civilians. Perhaps the torture of caputed Allied airmen is a better example. Here’s an intersting thought, what if the FBI had captured the lone Japanese spy in Hawaii before the Dec 7 attack? There’s a guy who would know an attack was coming. If only Karl Rove’s Grandfather had been available. The real tragedy is that the neocons, so quick to rewrite history, don’t know their history. The US, by and large, did not resort to torture when facing the worst Dictator in human history. They attempt to compare our current war with WWII, but don’t know how it actually played out. Perhaps they don’t care.

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